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Solana Beach takes its energy pitch to the streets

Solana Beach has embarked on its campaign to spread the word about Community Choice Energy, a program in which the city would buy energy for its residents on the open market rather than from SDG&E.
(Sebastian Montes)

The unassuming tents with city logos and “Community Choice Aggregation” banners have started making their appearance in Solana Beach, bound to become an increasingly familiar fixture at community events as city officials get the word out on their plan to steer the city toward a self-controlled energy future.

Solana Beach took the historic first step three months ago toward Community Choice Aggregation — also called Community Choice Energy — a program in which the city would buy its energy on the open market in the hopes of finding better prices and a higher percentage of renewable energy.

While various jurisdictions in SDG&E’s 4,000-square-mile service area have shown interest in Community Choice Energy — and in a few cases have decided to start feasibility studies — no other jurisdiction is nearly as far along as is Solana Beach. If the earliest projections bear out, the city’s CCE could be up and running by the end of next year.

But first, the city and its consultants are wading through an exploratory phase that in the next few months will produce a technical analysis, an implementation plan and, in the blue and white tents, put city staff face to face with the residents who will need to stay on board if the CCE is to be viable.

The outreach has put up stakes at the past two Thursday concerts at Fletcher Cove, and did so again on Sunday, Aug. 20 at the Cedros Avenue farmers market. Its biggest audience yet awaits on Saturday at the city’s annual beach blanket movie night at Fletcher Cove.

“We can use all the help we can get,” Assistant City Manager Dan King told the city’s Climate Action Commission last week.

Among the eight CCEs already operating in California, the benefits have so far borne out favorably, proving to be economically viable while achieving a higher percentage of renewable energy than the host utility company — a message that CAC member and former city councilman Steve Zahn took to NBC7 on Aug. 20.

“This train has left the station, and all of the eight CCAs in the state have been profitable,” he said. “They’re producing surpluses, they’re rebating back to the cities.”

One variable that has so far resisted experts’ forecasts is customer participation. Per state law, every energy customer in the city would be automatically enrolled in Solana Beach’s CCE but would have the right to drop out at no cost and revert to SDG&E service. A large enough exodus could weaken the CCE’s purchasing power and hinder the city’s ability to strike its desired balance between lower rates and higher renewable energy.

“There is definitely a line beyond which it wouldn’t make sense,” City Manager Greg Wade said at the tent on Aug. 20. “Most CCEs take a hypothetical opt-out scenario of about 20 percent. When we run our numbers, we’ll be looking at conservative estimates and asking that question. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but what if 60 percent opted out? What if 50 percent opted out? There is going to be a point at which it wouldn’t make sense.”

So far the pitch has been a passive one, with city staff fielding questions from the occasional passersby and gauging their priorities — always careful to offer rationale rather than overtly convince.

“We’re taking a measured approach,” Wade said. “I wouldn’t say so much that we’re trying to convince people to stay in, we’re just giving them the information. Obviously the objective is that they won’t opt out, but it’s really their choice to do that.”

While most of the conversations on Thursday and Sunday lingered for several attentive minutes, the tents were hardly a hive of activity.

One of the handful who stopped by on Sunday was Sharon Rosen Leib, who has lived in northwest Solana Beach more than 20 years. Her most pressing question: will the CCE be able to match what SDG&E pays her for the surplus energy generated by her home’s solar panels?

She was heartened to hear that the city’s models suggest the CCE could offer a better rate.

“Not that we care that much about the money — it incentivizes people to put in solar,” she said.

More importantly, the key to incentivizing enough of Solana Beach to stay in the CCE is to skew toward a high percentage of renewable energy rather than simply aim for the lowest possible rates.

“It would be great if they could balance both but I think probably higher renewable would be better if it could be for only a few dollars per month more,” she said. “I also want it to encourage more solar. A lot of our neighbors have it already and in the new construction in our area, almost everyone is putting on solar.”

After Saturday’s event at Fletcher Cove, the CCE campaign will host targeted events with businesses and homeowners associations. The city will also at some point host a public workshop.

The city council’s next decision point will come toward the end of this year after weighing input from the outreach alongside the implementation plan and the technical analysis. If the council decides to move forward, the next phase will see the city set its electricity rates and identify energy sources. That is expected to take six months to a year.

An update to the city council is tentatively planned for its Sept. 27 meeting.


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